I, Writer

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Jessie Shires of JesseShires.com.

Not too long ago, I picked up a little bug that was going around and spent some time investigating the comfort of my couch. When you’re sick, guiding chicken broth into your mouth and another DVD into the player are about all you can accomplish. I slept a lot, tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to read, and watched more movies in three days than I’d watched in the previous three weeks.

One of these was Starting Out In The Evening, a film about writing. I added it to the queue based on one review and the roster of glowing comments from other Netflix users. This isn’t intended to be a movie review, but it is relevant to my post to say this much: about 30 minutes in, I was ready to stop watching because of an absurd story arc; it was the words that kept me tuned in.

Making movies about writers and writing is a tricky thing. Neurotic and lonely are two stock approaches to writers as characters, and they’re effective shorthand for most audiences.

That they–like all stereotypes–are rooted in at least a little bit of truth merely makes them harder to shake, not less irritating.

But writers themselves–presumably the ones most invested in straightening out this image problem–aren’t much better at refuting those stereotypes, either. It seems that many writers have taken up the “woe is me, my art is a lonely discipline” cross and are loath to let it go. Cultivating the writing is so, so hard shtick sets them apart, lends weight to how they spend their time–weight that an appreciator of fine writing wouldn’t hesitate to grant, but a writer’s parents or girlfriend or cubicle mates might not.

Okay, fine, yes: writing is hard work, sometimes. And sometimes it isn’t.

[ducks stones]

I’ve mentioned before Florence King’s brilliant observation about Americans and our addiction to stress. I think writers and their attitudes about their craft are much the same. It doesn’t make the end product any less worthwhile to say that it wasn’t so hard-won, but that’s a tenet we can’t quite give up. Worse, it just might make it even harder to produce an end product if we keep insisting that the work itself has to be tortuous. There’s a fine line between ritual and fetish, and once the writing is fetishized, it grows even further out of reach.

But we like to be special, exceptional. The writing naysayers–much like those harried parents who warn you in wise, ominous tones to NEVER. HAVE. CHILDREN.–seem like they’re just guarding their little bit of territory, making sure no one else gets in to steal their stress-medals. They are part of a stoic, enduring elite, toiling away in their tower, doing work we all wish we were cut out to do.

It strikes me as a rather cheap way to elevate oneself, and it begs the question: if it’s so awful, why do it? Where’s the joy in that work? If the work you’re describing were a boyfriend, I’d tell you to leave him. Heck, I’d help you pack your bags and drive the getaway car. A little toil and sweat is fine and healthy; endless slogging and misery–even in the service of beauty–is not.

But I suppose the writer content with her labor and silent about the challenge doesn’t make for very interesting viewing (or reading), so most filmmakers dust off the tired “crazy artist” character, swap the paintbrush for ink-stained fingers, and call it good.

Starting Out In The Evening is worth watching, from a writer’s perspective, simply because it does manage to portray one writer’s complicated relationship to his work without sliding into stereotype territory. The main character battles writer’s block, fields probing questions about the autobiographical roots of his novels, endures critiques of his work and declarations about the relative importance of his career, and he manages to retain his humanity and a healthy sense of perspective through it all.

But perhaps most importantly, he sounds like a writer. He doesn’t just wear the hat. He is a writer, not because he taps away at a vintage typewriter or because he has fans and a literary agent or because he sits in cafes wearing a natty scarf and glasses. He is a writer because he has a relationship with language. Casting is significant here–Frank Langella has the necessary grace and gravity and carefully inhabits this character–but it’s the screenplay that cinches it. The character talks like someone who lives steeped in words. We can imagine having read the man’s novels simply by listening to the way he speaks. He isn’t inhabiting his idea of a profession or an identity; he is doing what comes naturally to him.

Those of us who write simply because that’s what we do can relate. Whether or not my name ever appears on the cover of an actual book, I write. Whether or not I garner more than a handful of readers, I write. Whether or not I make money at it, I write. I write because I fell in love with words as soon as I could read them. I write because it satisfies me in the same way that baking a cake or building a table or running a marathon or winning a chess game satisfies other people. None of these is always easy or without setbacks. Cakes burn. Tables wobble. Sometimes you hit the wall and can run no farther. Some days you’re always one move behind. But the task itself is the reason you keep at it, not the identity or the prestige or the attention. The joy in is the work, even when the work is dirty or hard or trying.

Annie Dillard captures this sense of balance well in her book, The Writing Life. She writes about the hard bits, the bits at the heart of the stereotypes–lonely work, boring work, consuming work. But always there is the passion, the relentlessness, the compulsion that is more merciless than love:

Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work’s possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks.

To write isn’t about us. It isn’t about attaining an identity, wearing a hat. It’s about passion for the words themselves, our relationship with language. It is labor, sometimes, but I believe there can be–should be, must be–joy in the work. Our bylines don’t make us writers; the words flowing through us do.

Jessie Shires:  Paramedic. writer + editor + blogger. future farmer. amateur gourmand. hiker. dog owner. dirt worshipper. bike commuter. wannabe polymath. Check her out at jessieshires.com.

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8 comments on “I, Writer

  1. Beautiful and so very true.
    I wonder if perhaps part of the reason we become so attached to the idea that we have to struggle is the worry over being perceived as lazy, or that what we do isn’t really “work”.
    I’ve worked in preforming arts, (as a technician) for 15 years, and I never cease to be surprised at how others devalue all of the work that goes on from being a performer to any other position. I find I often get the same response to my blogging. It’s just not important.
    I find myself occasionally falling into the trap of this is so hard… and then I catch myself and realize why I’m doing it.

    • jessieshires says:

      I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say. An undertaking like writing is easy to dismiss because it doesn’t fit our notion of what “work” looks like. Writing doesn’t give us calloused hands. It doesn’t look hard when you’re not the one doing it. It’s quiet and solitary. You may work for years on something that is never published. Nothing about it jives with the story we’ve fed ourselves about what is worthy of our time. A huge part of this is that we’ve terminally de-valued the creative arts–art, in all its forms, is perceived as either hobby (and therefore should come secondary to more worthy pursuits) or as a plaything of the rich. Either way, its incredibly marginalized. And so, to be the artist is to struggle with or against this attitude, from others and from within ourselves. I’m still figuring out how to properly re-value many things in my life, including my writing. Let’s keep up the good fight.

  2. “Our bylines don’t make us writers; the words flowing through us do.”

    A wonderful ending to a brilliant piece. Thanks!

    Every time I read something like this, I get elated and frustrated at the same time. I love the words and can see your passion through them. Can I ever join your tribe? I will….

  3. jessieshires says:

    Thanks to everyone for reading, and to Ollin for the guest slot!

  4. Heart says:

    Neurotic?! Well, I don’t know :), but sometimes I struggle and strive to be ‘lonely’, especially in the night to gather my thoughts and to be able to finish what I plan on writing..
    When you say writing isn’t so hard sometimes, I don’t feel that way most of the times, but I certainly admire writers who write every day, or who microblog, because they just write because they feel that way.. and not worry too much about ‘my art is a lonely discipline’ mode like me!
    I like your piece overall, but more specifically, your criticism about the writing naysayers.. Well done!

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